Monday, October 10, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (5)

If you're feeling a bit lost, remember that the synopsis of the section is still just over here.  Today we round out Barth's teaching about Jesus Christ as the electing God and the elected Man, under the heading The eternal will of God in the election of Jesus Christ.    As a reminder of what it is that Barth is seeking to explain and defend in this sub-section, he summarises his doctrine thus far: Jesus Christ is the electing God (the subject of election), and he is the elected man (the object of election); "In the beginning with God was this One, Jesus Christ.  And that is predestination" (145).  But of course that is rather different from the traditional understanding, and so it requires defence.  This is a long sub-section, which makes four main points.  I will try to give an overview, although in the nature of the case it will be with very broad brush-strokes.

1.  An "epistemological observation" (146).  Barth's thesis differs from the traditional view because in that view the subject and object of predestination "are treated as unknown" (146).  This won't do.  "For as long as we are left in obscurity on the one side or the other, and in practice both, as long as we cannot ultimately know, and ought not to know, and ought not even to ask, who is the electing God and elected man, it does not avail us in the least to be assured and reassured that in face of this mystery we ought to be silent and to humble ourselves and to adore" (147).  Are we really faced with this unfathomable mystery on each side?  "The decisive point is the reading of the Bible itself.  It is the question where and how we find in the Bible itself the electing God and elected man..." (148).  For Barth, the answer is that the Bible points us to Jesus Christ and no other, and he is critical of the theologians of Protestant Orthodoxy who generally understood and stuck to the rule that God is known in his revelation, in Christ, and in him alone - except at this point.  "Is Jesus Christ really the One who was, and is, and is to come, or is He not?" (153) - and if he is, why does that 'was' not include election and predestination?

2.  Predestination is "eternal, preceding time and all the contents of time"; it is "the beginning which has no beginning except in God's eternal being in Himself" (155).  This does not mean that God is "tied in Himself to the universe" (155) - Barth knows that God is in himself self-sufficient, and knows that it is in freedom that he has committed himself to the universe.  (I think this is a place where Barth does rely on the traditional doctrine of the immanent Trinity).  So far, so traditional.  But the difference is that for Barth "at the beginning of all things God's eternal plan and decree was identical with what is disclosed to us in time as the revelation of God and of the truth about all things" (156).  As an aside, I don't think there is any collapsing of time into eternity here; the will of God in eternity is enacted in time.  But what God does in time is identical with his will from all eternity.

3.  "The eternal will of God in the election of Jesus Christ is His will to give Himself for the sake of man as created by Him and fallen from Him" (161).  This is a two-fold predestination, in that it involves God's choice of himself for man, and of man for himself.  But God has nothing to gain here; in choosing himself for fellowship with man, he is "hazarding ... His Godhead and power and status" (162).  "Where man stands only to gain, God stands only to lose" (162).  In reference to the Calvinist doctrine of a double predestination - election and reprobation - Barth comments "that in the election of Jesus Christ which is the eternal will of God, God has ascribed to man the former, election, salvation and life; and to Himself He has ascribed the latter, reprobation, perdition and death" (163).  In saying this, "we say implicitly that this portion is not man's portion" (166).  In fact, "the self-giving of God consists, the giving and sending of His Son is fulfilled, in the fact that He is rejected in order that we might not be rejected.  Predestination means that from all eternity God has determined upon man's acquittal at his own cost" (167).  For Barth, the big problem with the classical Calvinist doctrine of predestination is that because it is not founded on Christ it ends up being dangerously balanced between good and evil, election and reprobation, life and death.  In his own reworking, election predominates, life predominates.  This does, of course, raise the question of the individual's election (or reprobation?), but Barth doesn't attempt to tackle that at this stage.  It seems to me that the logic of this point directs us towards universalism, and if Barth isn't going there we'll need to see why later.

4.  Because God's eternal will is "identical with the election of Jesus Christ" it is "a divine activity in the form of the history, encounter and decision between God and man" (175).  This point is a little obscure to me.  The overall thrust seems to be that predestination doesn't mean the setting up of an immutable law, but that it means rather the playing out of the history between God and man which we see in Jesus Christ.  On the way, Barth says that "the purpose and meaning of the eternal divine election of grace consists in the fact that the one who is elected from all eternity can and does elect God in return" (178) - I take it that what he is saying is that God's election leads to genuine relationship between God and man, not just a puppet show with God pulling all the strings.

The overall effect of this sub-section, for me, is to clarify what Barth means by making Christ the subject and object of election - and it is a beautiful and I think pastorally sensitive construction.  But along the way I'm not sure that the question of the individual's election hasn't become less clear.  God's election plays out in history, and indeed can only be known in this way ("There is no knowledge of predestination except in the movement from the electing God to elected man, and back again from elected man to the electing God" [186].) - but what does this mean for us as individuals exactly?  We'll see whether we get answers or not.

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